Progressive Futures

An open letter from Dublin to Amsterdam

20 March 2017

The leader of Irish Labour recalls the parallels between the Dutch election and the result his own party faced a year ago

Brendan Howlin

To my colleagues in Partij van de Arbeid,

Five years ago, you won 25% of the vote and 38 seats – a fine election result. As the second largest party in the country, you joined a grand coalition government.

The parallels with the Irish election results a year earlier are remarkable. In 2011, we won almost 20% of the vote, winning 37 seats. As the second largest party in the country, we too entered a grand coalition.

In 2011 and 2012, your success mirrored ours. Unfortunately, the parallels did not end there. Both of our parties changed leader while in government.  Those changes sadly did not lead to an improvement in electoral fortunes. And last week you saw an election result remarkably similar to that we experienced last year.

In 2016, the Irish general election saw my party fall to 6.6% of the vote, winning only seven seats. Last week, you faced similar losses, falling to 5.7% of the vote, and winning only nine seats.

To see our sister party replicate our defeat gives me no consolation. But I hope the work we have done to begin rebuilding the Irish Labour party might help you to see some light at the end of what must look like a very dark tunnel.

Politics is a messy business. Compromise has become compromising. Populist forces on both the right and left are chipping away at proud political traditions. And the harsh reality is that no political party has a divine right to exist. These facts only add to the wounding pain caused by defeats like both of our parties have suffered.

In Ireland, we have spent much of the last 12 months working on rebuilding our movement. We have debated our achievements over the last few years, we have committed once more to campaigning in our communities, and we have begun to bring forward a new generation of Labour politicians

Next month, we will gather at our first national conference since the crushing defeat of 2016. We will adopt a new constitution that widens democracy in our party, and moves control over policy and strategy towards our members. We will reflect on our successes and failures over recent years, and we will reach a reckoning with our past.

We will also set out a renewed vision of what Labour offers to Ireland. We will look afresh at the future of work, to see how the economic uncertainty that is causing so much disaffection can be eased. We will look anew at the challenges of sustainability and climate change, to see how our precious inheritance – the earth – can be protected and nurtured for generations to follow. We will look to spell out a new vision of how Labour, and only Labour, can lead the battle for social and economic justice across Ireland.

Twelve months after our defeat, we have not seen increased support in opinion polls, or a sudden outpouring of support for Labour. But we have put in place a lot of the foundations for us to rebuild our great party.

Your party has never experienced a defeat like this before. Mine has. Back in 1987, the Labour Party got 6.4% of the vote – our lowest share in history. But five years later, we had rebuilt our party, and we won 19.3% of the vote.

You will have many commentators telling you that your party is finished. Do not let them be right. Take some time to reflect on how you got to where you are. Then pick yourselves up, dust yourselves down, and get back to working for the people of the Netherlands.

Rebuild your party, and fight for your people. We in Ireland will do the same. If we do this right, I believe that in 2021 and 2022 we will raise a glass to renewed Labour success in both countries.

Yours in solidarity